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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  n.67 Santiago dic. 2007 

ARQ, n. 67 Concursos de arquitectura / Architectural competitions, Santiago, december, 2007, p. 10-17.


Behind the competitions

Fernando Pérez Oyarzun *

* Jefe del programa de Doctorado en Arquitectura y Estudios Urbanos, Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Estudios Urbanos, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.


Architectural competitions seem to incorporate guarantees of quality results; they may promote the careers of young architects; they reveal the tensions within the architectural field at a given moment. Analyzing their variants can help to understand the problems surrounding the genre.

Key words: Architectural competitions, horizontal commentary, rules, architectural program, jury.


Improving our grasp of the issues involved in architectural competitions requires taking distance from this very familiar, but problematic practice. The historical persistence of the phenomenon, over several centuries now, provides us the perspective needed to reflect on its meaning for the discipline and the profession. This is what Alberto Montealegre does in a rather philosophical article in the present issue, entitled Derecho, fines y medios: la declinación del concurso de arquitectura, focusing on the social contract that he says underpins architectural competitions as an institution. From his rather skeptical point of view, this underpinning is problematic, and the problems are accentuated by current economic conditions and the state of the architectural discipline and profession.
Jorge Heitmann is also critical in considering the alternative submissions for a new administrative city in Korea, and the role that the DOGMA/OFFICE proposal played in the process. It was eliminated by the jury in the second round of the competition. Beyond the jury’s widely questioned attitude, however, the very phenomenon of a worldwide call for submissions is evidence that the architectural competition is alive and well, even if results are sometimes problematic.
From the point of view of other disciplines in the world of building, competitions may appear a peculiar institution and a strange practice, though they go back at least to the early Renaissance in architecture. Indeed, some historians see traces of architectural competition in earlier periods
(1), if not in the form they take today. One of the most celebrated competitions in the historical record is the one held in Florence for construction of the cupola of Santa Maria dei Fiori, where the first prize was shared by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti(2). Architecture, like sculpture, but unlike painting where competitions are less common, is an art in which the proposal, as an anticipatory vision of the work, has fundamental importance, and the magnitude of resources involved leads to very serious effort at this stage.
Engineers, more accustomed to competing on the basis of background and experience, might very well ask, Isn’t the prestige or recognized talent of an architect guarantee enough of the quality of his results? History seems to have answered this question in the negative
(3). Indeed, as the DOGMA/OFFICE in Korea case shows, competitions have provided opportunities for less recognized architects to emerge despite the presence of prestigious and experienced elders. Two peculiar factors to our discipline seem to be at play here. The first is the fact that architectural work is dependent on surrounding circumstances. One set of such circumstances is intangible, ranging from the general cultural climate to clients’ attitudes. Given these factors, even highly talented architects find themselves unable to maintain an even level in their work. A second type of circumstance has to do with what was identified already by Aristotle as a factor inherent to artistic effort, the fact that it produces not necessary solutions, but possible solutions. Thus the arts, including architecture, are not constrained to a given number of good or feasible possibilities, but eager to create new alternatives. As a result, it is difficult to visualize or foresee the effectiveness of an architectural solution unless it has reached a certain degree of completeness and development. This is precisely what competitions aim to encourage and take advantage of, and what architectural proposals are designed to achieve. In a sense, these competitions may be seen, to borrow François Jacob’s words on scientific research, as a workshop of the possible(4).
Regardless of the reasons for which competitions have assumed the place that they have in architecture, that place is indubitably central and have the greatest consequence. First, by providing opportunities for commissions to young architects, competitions combat the profession’s sclerotic tendencies. Second, competitions reveal with special clarity the tensions in the discipline at a given moment. And finally, as a public process, they are a political sign of openness, a sort of antidote to the complications associated with the economic benefits that accompany commissions, and a way of publicizing and legitimizing major public or private initiatives.
We must remember that competitions have not always culminated in the construction of the winning design. On more than a few occasions, winning projects have simply taken up a lasting place as key referents in the collective architectural imagination. It is against this backdrop that we must see some of the controversial competition outcomes discussed in this issue of ARQ.
In the nineteenth century, public competitions seem to have been a well-established institution. The competition for the construction of the Paris Opera is one of the most celebrated. It attracted over 170 participants and prefigured an attitude of the French government that was to make itself evident years later with competitions for buildings such as the Pompidou Center, the Bastille Opera and the Tête Défense. In terms of its architecture-historical significance, the twentieth century is marked by a series of important competitions that are snapshots of the state of architecture at their respective times. In 1922, the Chicago Tribune competition drew the creative and critical reflections of over 260 architects on the theme of skyscraper office buildings. Though the competition was won by John Mead Howells and Raymond M. Hood, Eliel Saarinen’s proposal, which took only second place, has been considered the most influential in terms of its effect on subsequent skyscraper design. Among many others, figures such as Gropius and Meyer, the Taut brothers, and Adolf Loos participated, profiling the variety of postures prominent in the early 1920s regarding office skyscrapers
Le Corbusier’s proposals for the 1926 Palace of Nations competition in Geneva and the 1929 Palace of the Soviets competition were great failures. In Geneva, he was not even among the five architects asked to work on the final proposal. However, the building that was eventually built, designed by Julien Flegenheimer and Henri-Paul Nénot, is surely less known by architects than is Le Corbusier’s design, which has been widely published and analyzed. In the second case, Boris Iofan won, but the project was not finally built
The competition for the Columbus Lighthouse competition, examined by Robert González in this issue as a part of the Pan-American movement, is also a part of the saga of international competitions. The idea for this competition had emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was held only in 1931. Over 400 architects from around the world participated. The triumph of Joseph Lea Gleave under the apparent influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on the jury is a representative case of the an unknown young architect’s career being promoted by a competition.
In Latin America, the 1936 competition for the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro failed as a process for selecting the building’s design, but produced one of the most interesting buildings of the period
(7). Three decades later, the PREVI competition in Lima, during the presidency of architect Fernando Belaúnde Terry, put the ideas of modern architecture at the service of social housing needs. The competition’s invitations to figures such as James Stirling, Christopher Alexander and Aldo van Eyck, along with the international jury, of which José Antonio Coderch was a member, reflect the competition’s ambitiousness.
In Chile, too, a long list of competitions played a significant role in the unfolding of architecture in the twentieth century, with designs for the Club de la Unión, the restaurant Cap Ducal
(8), and Universidad Federico Santa María chosen in privately held competitions(9).
Controversy about the both process and results have not been lacking in these competitions. Thus, the awarding of the contract for the School of Medicine at the Universidad de Chile to Juan Martínez created great disillusionment in firms such as those of Valdés, Castillo and Huidobro. Similar reactions were evinced in relation to the proposal developed with such effort by the School of Architecture of Universidad Católica de Valparaíso for the Naval School in Valparaíso. The competition for the United Nations building in Santiago, which was won by Emilio Duhart, seems, on the other hand, to have evoked a major consensus.
Architectural competitions as an institution took shape over a long period before becoming what they are today. Though there are variations on the theme, including open and invitational competitions, as well as a hybrid of the two, and competitions involving one phase of judging or more, the basic structure of the competition is a given at this point in history, and if any of the facets of the form are out of place the effectiveness and even meaning of the competition are jeopardized.
The first facet of the competition process that presents itself for examination is the rules, and one article in this issue explores this point of view. In the article El programa arquitectónico en las bases de un concurso, Claudio Vásquez, who has himself redacted competition rules for the Liceo Alemán del Verbo Divino competition in Colina highlights the significance of this element of the competitive process. In passing, he touches on some well-known cases, including the recent OMA design for the Centro de Congresos in Córdoba, where application of the rules or laxity had decisive impact on the result of the competition. Rules normally address two areas: the procedural issues (administrative rules) and the conditions that submissions must meet (technical rules). Claudio Vásquez’s reference to the ideas of Isidro Suárez fruitfully reminds us that notable effort to think through the programmatic dimension of architecture, which deals with the meaning and mold of its forms. Competition rules, as a sort of generic prefiguration of the design, must somehow overcome the resistance that architecture opposes to verbal formulation. However, the historical persistence of architects’ project notes and writings, as well as verbally formulated technical specifications, clearly show that it is impossible to sidestep this dimension, and in competitions it provides the framework for a jury’s discussion. Commitment to the rules as an embodiment of the demanding process of prefigurement sometimes makes juries’ work difficult. In an article published in issue number 42 of CA, which focuses on competitions, Jaime Márquez stresses the need for a competition doctrine, adducing as a basic reason such difficulties as the above in the process of overseeing competitions
That same issue examines both the results of and the controversy on the public competition for the Shell headquarters
(11), attributing responsibility for the disenchantment provoked by the result to the jury’s composition and consequent decision. However, juries are a fundamental piece of the competition as a present-day institution. As in legal systems, they are a societal response to the challenge of creating a process that must seek objectivity through a confluence of subjective perspectives. Clearly, architectural decisions take place in an intermediate space that is neither scientific objectivity nor subjective arbitrariness. The creation of a good jury is almost a form of art, for juries must be responsible to the interests and intentions of commissioning entities, while simultaneously reflecting the values of the profession as represented by architects with fine critical judgment. Experience shows that prestigious architects do not necessarily make for the best-functioning jury. Dialogue and devotion to the task are equally fundamental, and the role of the person chairing the jury can be decisive. Serious dialogue is significant not only as a guarantor of good outcomes, but also because it serves as a microcosm of the ongoing dialogue between a society and its architects.
Juries’ decisions do not necessarily put an end to the architectural avatars that are spawned by a competitive call for proposals, for winning designs are normally -one might say habitually, but one cannot say invariably- built in the end.
Often, competition rules leave latitude for commissioning entities to make their final decisions independent of juries’ opinions. The Santiago College proposal published in this issue is one example, and the Saint George case some decades ago, though the circumstances were different, is another. It was unfortunate that a proposal that so interestingly explored new possibilities for modern school typologies did not evoke the necessary consensus.
The process subsequent to the competition can also create problems, as the case of the Smiljan Radic, Eduardo Castillo and Ricardo Serpell project demonstrates. It is remarkable that the decision on this administrative center so important for the city of Concepción was made in an open competition, and that the jury should have selected so radical a proposal. Lamentably, however, the architects failed to thoroughly supervise the construction work. For various reasons, such situations have occurred in other international contexts as well
(12). Looking beyond the issues of unforeseen factors and mistakes, this points to an underlying tension that is inherent in the architect’s ability to take action during the execution of a work. Programmatic specifications and budget increases during construction are the most frequent reason adduced for such action(13). Resolving this tension effectively is one of the most important challenges that architects will face in the coming years not in terms of tensions involving their personal interests or positions, or those of the architectural trade, but in terms of ensuring that architecture can give society the best of itself, and that the architect is not relegated to the position of an image provider.
Despite all the difficulties that the institution of competitions faces, it has shown itself to be quite healthy in certain areas. The competitions examined in this issue include a notable number of educational projects (school and university buildings). The Liceo Alemán del Verbo Divino competition, which was won by a team comprising Felipe Assadi, Mathias Klotz, Francisca Pulido, Pablo Riquelme, Trinidad Schönthaler and Renzo Alvano, which is currently in construction, seems to have functioned flowingly from the writing of the rules to the building phase. Behind this success we see the weight of the tradition of a religious order dedicated to education, one that has evidently trusted competition as a mechanism since the 1940s, when it built the Verbo Divino in Las Condes, and the Liceo Alemán twenty years later
(14). The competition for the new Scuola Italiana, which was won by Teodoro Fernández, Sebastián Hernández and Milva Pesce, is also in this tradition, as is, in a sense, the Santiago College competition, whose second-place proposal by Juan Enrique Barros, Alberto Moletto, Juan Francisco Ossa, Álvaro Ramírez, Horacio Schmidt Cortés, Horacio Schmidt Radic, and Martín Schmidt, we publish here.
The tradition of competitions for educational buildings reflects confidence in the competitive process on the part of commissioning educational entities, a confidence that has not only generated a series of interesting school buildings, but that has promoted continuing reflection about educational buildings in general. Developments of the patio, for example, appear in both the Liceo Alemán and Santiago College proposals.
The issue of urban and geographical landscape is another case. It comes to the fore in the parque Juan Pablo II competition, which is the continuation of a project also begun via competition, and in the Scuola Italiana, where it plays a fundamental role. All of this is a reminder that competitions provide opportunities for the development of architectural ideas. One more demonstration of the fact is the Orquideorama designed by Felipe Mesa, Alejandro Bernal, Camilo Restrepo and J. Paul Restrepo. In this case, both the circumstances of the competition and the site in the Botanical Garden of Medellín provided the opportunity to seek a flexible, organically inspired solution that is in dialogue with the surroundings while lending itself to a range of programmatic requirements.
The two competitions for buildings at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile merit special mention. Not only do they remind us of a fruitful tradition of competitions stretching from the San Joaquín Campus project to the sites on Alameda, Lira and Quito streets awarded to Juan Ignacio Baixas and Enrique del Río. The Centro de Información Sergio Larrain García-Moreno construction of which was finally concluded under the responsibility of Cecilia Puga and Patricio Mardones based on a design by Teodoro Fernández, Smiljan Radic and Cecilia Puga chosen in a 1994 competition, demonstrates the lengthy development and adaptation that an architectural idea must go through on its way to realization, if it is to meet changing material conditions and programmatic parameters without losing sight of its original intuitive vision.
While balance among all the factors that go into a competition is the overarching factor that seems to ensure success, the initial call for proposals is obviously a key element. Without attracting a set of high-quality proposals, a competition cannot reach a satisfactory outcome, and it is only by provoking the necessary mixture of interest and enthusiasm among architects that it can enlist their efforts. Perpetuating and improving the competition process requires understanding the nature of competitions and their relationship to professional practice. This is not only one of their most significant architectural dimensions, but also one of their most powerful connections with social practices, for that problematic confluence to which Montealegre refers depends not only on competitions’ internal characteristics, but on what we are capable of doing with them.

In his piece on the architect in the middle ages in East and West, in The architect: chapters in the history of the profession, Spiro Kostof remarks “that competitions were sometimes implemented among possible candidates for a job, or the professional opinions of different architects were solicited to see which candidate was most completely qualified for the job. Thus, a number of French and English architects were brought together to make a decision about the repair of the choir at Canturbury Cathedral though they failed to reach a consensus”. p. 86.
2. As in so many competitions, this was a complex outcome that involved a compromise on the part of the jury. For historical reasons that are not entirely clear -apparently Brunelleschi’s technical supremacy was the determining factor- he played the leading role in the design process.
3. In his account of the construction of Santa Maria dei Fiori, Ross King stresses Brunelleschi’s vexation at having to compete for the design of the lantern housing of the cupola, having already demonstrated his abilities during the long years of construction.
4. “The science of the night, on the other hand, gropes blindly. It doubts, stumbles, retreats, sweats, awakens in fright. Questioning everything, it seeks, inquires, and corrects itself unceasingly. It is a sort of workshop of the possible, in which that which will become the stuff of science is created”. Translation from the Spanish text of La estatua interior, p. 299.
5. Loos’s proposal, a Doric column of black granite on a base has remained an object of controversy, challenging the neo-Gothic sensibility that came to dominate the competition, as well as the avant-garde posture with its abstract towers. Panayotis Tournikiotis has stressed that the idea was not all that exceptional in the context of the competition. The architects Gerhardt, Freeman and Patelski submitted variations on the same theme, though less radical than Loos’s.
6. The competition was won by Boris Iofan with a monumental project crowned by a sculpture. Much historical discussion of modern architecture has considered it anachronistic. However, a view of Moscow such as that presented by Kart Schlögel (Moscow) shows us that in many ways this was as much a living tradition there in the 1930s as were New York’s skyscrapers in that city. Melnikov’s proposal was also ignored in the competition.
7. In fact, Lucio Costa managed to persuade Gustavo Capanema, who was Minister at the time, to annul the verdict that had chosen the Archimede Memoria proposal and commission a young team of Brazilian architects which he himself headed, with Le Corbusier acting as an adviser.
8. As is known, Roberto Dávila presented a number of alternatives in different styles for this competition.
9. In the Universidad Federico Santa María case, a volume was published with the content of the four proposals submitted. The reason given was that though the Smith Solar and Smith Miller proposal had been declared the winner, all four proposals were of a quality that made them worthy of dissemination and use. Beyond this, though, we can see that there was a desire to preserve this piece of the institution’s history and the notable professional efforts associated with it, which seemed to have value beyond their role in selecting an architect for the project. The four teams invited were: Valdivieso and de la Cruz, Browne and Valenzuela, Smith Solar and Smith Miller, and Cruz Montt and Dávila. The jury included Jorge Alessandri, Enrique Costabal and Federico Montenegro.
Álvaro Orrego acted in an advisory capacity. See Concurso de anteproyectos para la Escuela de Artes y Oficios y Colegio de Ingenieros José Miguel Carrera.
10. Márquez, Jaime. “Hacia una doctrina de los concursos”. In CA 43, p.24.
11. Eliash, Humberto. Una polémica vigente”. In CA N° 43, pp. 70-72.
12. For example, in as well-known a competition as the one held for the new Atocha Station in Madrid, where the proposal’s architect, Rafael Moneo, acted only as an adviser during the construction.
13. In a forthcoming article in Escafandra in Madrid, Nicholas Ray comments on the change in the architect’s role in England in this regard, which has been limited. Swedish regulations also limit the architect’s role and presence in the construction phase.
14. In the former case, the result was one of the most notable modern school buildings in Chile. It was designed by Sergio Larrain, Emilio Duhart, Mario Pérez de Arce and Alberto Piwonka, with Oscar Praguer participating as landscape architect. The complete realization of the project lasted several decades, and in the last years it was the responsibility of Mario Pérez de Arce y Asociados.



Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. Academy Editions, Londres, 1980.         [ Links ]
Fundación Federico Santa María. Concurso de anteproyectos para la Escuela de Artes y Oficios y Colegio de Ingenieros José Miguel Carrera. Sociedad Imp. y Lit. Universo, Valparaíso, 1927.         [ Links ]
Jacob, François. La estatua interior. Tusquets editores, Barcelona, 1989.         [ Links ]
King, Ross. Brunelleschi´s Dome. Penguin Group, Londres, 2001.         [ Links ]
Kostof, Spiro. El arquitecto: historia de una profesión. Cátedra, Madrid, 1984.         [ Links ]
Schlögel, Karl. Moscow. Reaktion Books, Londres, 2005.         [ Links ]
Tournikiotis, Panayotis. Adolf Loos. Princeton Architectural Press, Nueva York, 1994.         [ Links ]

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